After eco-camp we made our way to Sipadan island, one of the best dive sites in the world. 9 years ago all dive operations/hotels on Sipadan were closed by the government in order to preserve and rebuild the rich marine life around the island. Thereafter dive tours had to obtain permits for each diver and only 120 permits are issued daily. Every day tons of travelers pour into Semporna, the closest mainland town to Sipadan. From there they can book dive tours and find a hotel on one of the nearby islands. There is a pretty big gap in the accommodations on the islands; affordable = mattress on the floor in a communal room with rats running under the floorboards or pricey = wannabe swanky resort usually geared towards Chinese tourists.
We had a loose plan, stay on the mainland in Semporna and take 2 snorkel day trips, hopefully one going to Sipadan! We hadn’t booked a place in advance and ambled off the bus (a loooong ride) right into a crowd of “helpful” locals interrogating us on whether we had a place to stay. We refused to play that game and instead purposely headed into town, with the knowledge that most guesthouses were near the pier. Of course we didn’t know where the pier was so we were just walking in the direction that seemed the most likely, all the while Kelsey and I started to feel the glare of people looking at us in a very, very unfriendly way. (Please note the only “inappropriate” clothing we might have been wearing was tank tops – we definitely were not wearing shorts) As we passed through the market and down the street towards the water, the smells of rotting fish, garbage, sewage and other stinky unidentifiables hit us… like a sledgehammer. Sadly we passed houses built on stilts in the water with a solid bed of garbage floating below. Kelsey and I went door to door checking out prices/rooms and found the ONLY decent accommodations in town at Sipadan Inn. None of us dive, so we set out to book a tour for both snorkelers and divers. Quickly we learned that the earliest we could get a permit to visit Sipadan was in a week and no coral paradise was going to convince Kelsey and James that staying in Semporna for a week was worth it.
Although Semporna sees a lot of tourists, one does not get the impression that they want to cater to them. In Borneo the population is 60% Muslim (Sunni) but in Semporna it felt extremely conservative Muslim, with most women completely covered (although not their faces) and a beautiful large mosque is in the center of town. There are very few restaurants that serve western food (or have translated menus), only 1-2 bars and no museums or attractions. It’s clear that tourists come only for the spectacular offshore sights.
We wound up booking a day trip to Sibuan island with Borneo Speedy Dive because it was the first shop (of 4 visited) where we were greeted with genuine enthusiasm from a knowledgeable dive booker. The next day we walked into the dive shop which was filled with about 35 Chinese divers. It was a nice half hour boat ride to Sibuan and we breathed a sigh of relief as we anchored in crystal blue water (a far cry from the garbage filled shoreline). When we were told that those snorkeling needed to leave the boat and wait onshore until all of the divers were set up, I started to have the feeling that we were second-class member of this tour. Grumbling the three of us walked down the beach and cat napped under a palm tree. Back at the boat a half hour later we met our snorkel guide, who cleaned all of our gear (even my personal mask) and ushered us into the water towards the snorkel spots. We started swimming and what began as little schools of white fish, soon led to millions of fish and coral. Our awesome guide led us further around the island, pointing out unusual fish or sea creatures on the way. The changing landscape on the seafloor was beautiful. My favorite spot was where the floor sloped down dramatically, changing from a reflective blue/green into a dark abyss of much deeper water (40 meters). At one point there was a very strange noise and everyone surfaced, the guide told us that the sound was from illegal dynamite fishing – we could see the boat in the distance. With thoughts of safety bouncing around I thought well if the guide isn’t worried…. And we continued. But the 2 more times we heard the noise were REALLY unnerving. And then the turtle parade kicked off when our guide pointed out a hawksbill turtle below us. We would follow one for a while and then soon enough spot another. It was amazing! Back at the boat we had lunch and listened as the frustrated instructors yelled orders to the divers who were all first timers getting certifications. It appeared to be a laborious process of repeating instructions, which either weren’t understood or were completely disregarded. None of the divers would speak to us, so we tried to befriend the young sea gypsy boys who live on the island with their families but settled for buying coconuts from them to drink. At some point when the boat ride back was held up by the divers who cluelessly left expensive scuba equipment lying around which the instructors would yell at them for (you need this gauge to breathe!!), that we decided we were Snorkel 4 Life. (Complete with hand signs later invented by Kelsey) When I asked one of the divers if they had seen any unusual fish or turtles, he scoffed at me “there aren’t any turtles around” and I had the great pleasure of telling him we’d swam with 5. Snorkel 4 Life!